Angry voters take it out on impartial planners, too

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“The success of our cities in international liveability surveys suggests planners get that balance right most of the time, but new challenges are emerging as demographic change takes hold,” writes IAN WOOD-BRADLEY, president of the ACT division of the Planning Institute of Australia.

THE privileges of living in our democracy are many and varied: freedom of speech and association, universal suffrage, the right to petition Parliament and so on.

Ian Bradley-Wood.

Democracy also affords its citizens the right to oppose development proposals.

People push back against redevelopment because they think it will undermine their neighbourhood’s amenity or because they believe it may contravene their local planning scheme or codes. 

They may challenge a new development – especially if it is large and imposing and backed by an uncompromising government – on the grounds that public consultation and input was lacking.

Planning is about balancing private, government and community interests to enable individuals and communities to prosper and grow sustainably. 

The success of our cities in international liveability surveys suggests planners get that balance right most of the time, but new challenges are emerging as demographic change takes hold.

Canberra is growing quickly, and to limit unsustainable (and expensive) urban sprawl, the ACT planning strategy is directing that 70 per cent of the future growth in new dwellings occur within urban areas. 

For many Canberrans, the scale of this change is confronting, and many believe the outcome – large-scale, high-rise buildings in high-density centres – has been preordained.

However, growth needn’t be all on a massive scale. A more moderate and graduated density in a range of established suburbs – where extra dwellings are accommodated in ways that reinforce and enhance existing neighbourhood character – is readily achievable.

But this type of sustainable transformation requires a subtle and nuanced conversation about density done well, allied with a planning process that is trusted to deliver great places for people. 

Credibility is the cornerstone of all effective planning systems and processes – and if that cornerstone is weak the whole edifice is at risk of crumbling.

Maintaining the public’s faith and belief in the impartiality of planners and planning systems is not easy though, not when trust and confidence in governments and institutions more broadly are in long-term decline.

There are countless examples of egregious decision-making and poor behaviour from our elected officials that anger voters and undermine trust and confidence in our institutions.

Planning has been caught in this blowback. Mutterings about planners being out of touch with community sentiment are one manifestation of this. 

Occasionally, entire planning departments have been slandered by suggestions that they’re pushovers when it comes to greedy developers and their cronies in elected government.

Generalisations like this betray a lack of understanding of what it is that planners do, and where and how planning fits into the broader governance picture. They can also mask a refusal to accept that places evolve over time to suit the changing needs of the people that live there.

Besides ensuring built-form outcomes are fit for purpose, planners make sure codes, documents and processes work as intended and that they’re transparent and easy for the public to negotiate.

They also think strategically about how the future amenity and functional effectiveness of our towns, cities and regions can be improved.

Planners do not set strategic agendas or make final decisions on the scale and nature of future development. These matters are decided by governments, usually – but not always – on the advice and counsel of planners as technocrats.

Residents have every right to be sceptical of a government-sponsored review of a strategic document – especially if it appears the intention is to radically change existing development patterns.

But it’s not tenable to argue that certain neighbourhoods should be quarantined from changes happening elsewhere.

Likewise, governments cannot ride roughshod over community expectations without risking their electoral mandate or, more importantly, jeopardising their social licence to engineer change.

One way governments have sought to bridge the public credibility gap is by strengthening accountability mechanisms. 

Planning departments and agencies, too, have bolstered the integrity of their systems, put new codes of conduct in place to guard against conflicted decision-making, and invested in more effective public engagement techniques.

This city’s planners recognise that a rigid regulatory system and a contested development process will not support a more discretionary, design-led approach that enables design excellence to become the rule rather than the exception. 

With a compelling urban vision, Canberra can thrive in the 21st century. To create and deliver that vision, we need high-quality planners and a well-resourced and trusted planning agency.

Ian Wood-Bradley is the president of the ACT division of the Planning Institute of Australia, which represents qualified urban and regional planners across the country.

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